Xi broke the social contract that helped China prosper; read the scenario

The protests in China against draconian government anti-covid controls have been compared to those of 1989, when students demonstrated for political reforms and democracy. The 1989 pro-democracy movement occurred during the most politically liberal, tolerant, and enlightened period in the history of China Popular Republicand the regime opened fire on Tiananmen Square — after the spoliation of the Liberal leader Zhao Ziyang — because he has exhausted every other tool of control at his disposal. This is Tocqueville’s paradox: the less autocratic, the more vulnerable the autocracy.

But a closer analogy is April 5, 1976. On that date and the days immediately preceding it, demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square protesting tyrannical rule, deteriorating economic conditions, and the political persecution of the Gang of Four—and subsequently against your patron, Mao Zedong🇧🇷 It was a movement born of hurt feelings, not aspirations.

The Covid protests come at the height of China’s autocratic momentum. While there are calls for freedom of expression and elections, the protesters’ cry since Sunday has been against intense oppression: the incarceration of hundreds of millions of people in their homes and field hospitals. Autocracies — whether in China or elsewhere — are oppressive, but has any other autocratic regime ever taken away so many people’s rights to control everyday life?

Students hold blank sheets of paper during a protest against the zero covid policy in Hong Kong on November 29.
Students hold blank sheets of paper during a protest against the zero covid policy in Hong Kong on November 29. Photograph: Jerome Favre / EFE

Politically, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, violated a time-tested technique his predecessors used to defuse social tensions: divide and conquer. After 1989, most Chinese protests were localized and on specific issues. Residents of rural areas lost their land, but urban areas received torrents of benefits. State officials lost their jobs, but private entrepreneurs were courted to start businesses.

Benefits and losses equaled in the end. Different people harbored different grievances, and their grievances were not synchronized. O Communist Party not only did it survive these scattered protests, it grew and thrived. Today the party has around 96 million members. If it were a country, it would be the 16th largest in the world.

Now consider China’s covid-zero policy. Its lockdowns have put almost everyone in exactly the same situation, and according to one estimate, nearly 400 million people will have been placed under some form of control by 2022. Affluent Shanghainese have very little in common with residents of Urumqi in Xinjiang . But when ten people died in a high-rise building in Urumqi, whose doors had reportedly been locked because of anti-COVID restrictions, empathy, a crucial ingredient for collective action, erupted among citizens of Urumqi. Shanghai who live in tall buildings similar to that one. Never, not even in 1989, did the Chinese regime confront protests in several cities at the same time.

Xi’s autocratic style has undermined the Chinese Communist Party’s institutional interests. After the Tiananmen Square episode, Chinese leaders discovered a successful formula for preserving one-party rule that fostered growth, engineered innovation, and seeded successful ventures. This formula demanded loyalty from Chinese citizens, but also gave them space.

Young people could go to karaoke bars, rock concerts and idolize any K-pop star they wanted. Intellectuals could vent fury and frustration on China’s vibrant social network. And entrepreneurs were so busy making money that they didn’t have time to spell the word “politics”. This social contract, whereby the Communist Party respected certain boundaries as long as society did the same, was instrumental in pulling China back from the brink of disaster in the Tiananmen Square crisis and contributed to economic growth and prosperity. Like it—we in the West—or not, opinion polls taken in those years showed that young people in China were more supportive of the government’s nationalist political agenda than were older Chinese.

Xi broke that social contract. As of 2013, his government began allocating bank credits to chronically inefficient state-owned companies, to the detriment of the private sector. And then her government began cracking down on non-governmental organizations such as feminist groups and lawyers who helped migrant workers from rural backgrounds negotiate better wages. Even environmentalists have not been spared, even though one of Xi’s priorities has been to tackle China’s pollution. Censorship has been significantly stepped up on Chinese social media and universities. In 2020 and 2021, her government began to target – through fines and regulatory restrictions – Chinese jewels of technology and entrepreneurship: Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and many other companies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov.
Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, on Nov. Photograph: Athit Pewawongmetha/Reuters

The attack on large corporations in the technology industry has been counterproductive. The private sector in China generated tax revenue and property appreciation that funded the Communist Party and its many costly operations — including, yes, its mandatory Covid testing. Chinese high-tech companies have critically contributed to China’s early success in containing the coronavirus, introducing sanitary rules at record speed. They also created millions of jobs for Chinese youth, and the entrepreneurs who ran them became role models for more ambitious Chinese to undertake — rather than fretting over human rights or free expression. The Communist Party had the best of both worlds: a private sector that grew GDP, as academic research demonstrated, did not require political openness.

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The covid-zero policy is another example of a self-inflicted wound. In 2020, Xi’s government achieved a preliminary victory by putting the city of Wuhan under lockdown and quickly flattening the infection curve. Instead of using the window of opportunity in 2020 and 2021 to vaccinate its population with every available vaccine, including Pfizer and Moderna, the Chinese government has doubled down on the covid-zero policy against the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It was a doomed effort because, as epidemiologist Michael Osterholm puts it, it’s like “trying to stop the wind.”

Xi’s decision betrayed the height of arrogance — a leader risking his reputation on an impossible mission. While the lockdowns have brought untold suffering, new coronavirus infections have reached a record high of approximately 30,000 a day at a recent count. He over-promised and, predictably, under-delivered.

But inadvertently Xi made it easy for democracy in his country. When students held up blank sheets of paper in protests, they weren’t thinking of defending the rights of those expressing unpopular, dissident views; they were defending the right to be human—to take a walk in the park, have lunch at a restaurant, or visit friends to play games.

Chinese citizens just want their lives back, an argument that John Stuart Mill never thought of defending free speech. If this is the field on which the debate over democracy and autocracy takes place, democracy will win every time — and we have Xi to thank for that. / TRANSLATION BY GUILHERME RUSSO

*Yasheng Huang is professor of global economics and management at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and author of “Capitalism With Chinese Characteristics” and “The Rise and the Fall of the EAST: Examination, Autocracy, Stability, and Technology in Chinese History and Today,” which will be published in 2023.

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